FOLLOWING a court ruling which barred the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) from issuing fines to radio and television stations nationwide, some lawyers have asked media houses to seek a refund of already paid charges.
A Federal High Court in Abuja had, on May 10, barred the NBC from issuing fines to broadcast stations nationwide.
In the ruling, the presiding judge, Justice James Omotosho, declared that NBC does not have judicial powers to impose penalties on broadcast stations.
The judge held that the NBC Code, which gives the Commission the power to impose sanctions, conflicts with Section 6 of the Constitution, which vested the authority in the law courts.
The judge also set aside fines imposed on 45 broadcast stations by NBC.
In 2019, NBC fined 45 broadcast stations the sum of N500,000 each over alleged ethical infractions in that year’s general elections. The Commission said the stations had to be sanctioned for allowing politicians to utter abusive, inciting and provocative statements during broadcast programmes.
Displeased, the Incorporated Trustees of Media Rights Agenda filed a suit against NBC in 2020.
The group asked the court to declare the sanctions procedure applied by NBC in imposing the fine on the broadcast stations a violation of the right to fair hearing under Section 36 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) and Articles 7 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act (Cap AQ) Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004.
Justice Omotosho, while ruling on the matter, said the Commission acted as the complainant, court and judge when it considered the alleged infractions.
The judge noted that the Nigerian Broadcasting Code did not confer judicial powers on NBC to impose criminal sanctions or penalties.
He pointed out that NBC has no power to conduct a criminal investigation that would lead to a criminal trial and imposition of sanctions.
In recent times, the NBC has been accused of always imposing fines on media houses that are trying to hold the government to account, in a bid to silence them.
Some lawyers reacted to the judgment in separate interviews with The ICIR. While some told the media houses to head to court to seek a refund of money already paid as fines, others demanded the restructuring of the NBC.
A lawyer, Festus Ogun, said the NBC lacks the power to impose fines. He also added that media organisations are entitled to a full refund of penalties paid.
“The judgment of the court is a welcome development. Some of us have always maintained that the NBC lacks the power to arbitrarily and unilaterally impose fines on media houses.
“Indeed, given that the imposed fine is illegal, the media organisations are entitled to a full refund of the purported fine.”
He said the fine has always been the price media organisations pay for free speech, which is unacceptable in a democratic society.
“Media organisations should demand a full refund of the illegally obtained fines. NBC should apologise to them, too,” he added.
Also speaking, a legal practitioner Abdulkareem Musa said the media houses should have asked for a refund.
“They should have asked the court to order a refund. If the court did not order that, they may have to institute another legal action to demand refund,” Musa said.
Another lawyer, Abiola Kolawole, in a chat with The ICIR, said he believes the NBC will appeal the matter.
Abiola added that the NBC may only make a refund if the stations file a suit to recover the money.
“I don’t think it’s a Supreme Court ruling . It can be appealed. They won’t make any refund, at least for now, unless the stations file a suit against them to recover the money. That’s after they have appealed to the Supreme Court,” he stated.
In his own comment, a lawyer and a law lecturer Sam Amadi while speaking on Arise TV Morning show on Thursday, May 11, said the real issue is that NBC should follow due process and refrain from being an appendage of the Ministry of Information.
“I think at the court the real issue we should see is that NBC should be under due process provision which like any other regulator, the process for determination will be clear, a process for review will be clear.”
Noting that the court ruling is “good news”, Amadi said asking NBC not to impose fines might constrain the body.
He added that in doing its job, the NBC should give a fair hearing to all parties before imposing sanctions.
“But they have to have the safeguard of fair hearing, of giving the other parties right to be first heard before you sanction them. The NBC does not see itself as a regulator but see itself as an adjunct of the Ministry of information.
“It is a regulator, and its rules and procedure should be very clear,” Amadi added.
The role of the Minister Of Information, Lai Mohammed
Lai Mohammed became the Minister of Information in 2015, and his ministry directly supervises the NBC.
In 2019 shortly after his reappointment as the Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed said online news outlets will be regulated.
During the inauguration of a seven-man committee set up and charged with implementing reforms in the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), the minister said the committee is to implement recommendations supposedly approved by President Muhammadu Buhari.
Mohammed said the President approved an amendment to the NBC Act, enabling the Commission to license WebTv and radio stations, including foreign broadcasters.
Some media houses penalised in recent years by NBC
In July 2018, NBC fined Raypower FM N500,000 for inflammatory comments.
The sanction was for what it termed “provocative, inflammatory and divisive comments” made by anchors of Political Platform, a current affairs programme aired on the radio station.
A statement issued by NBC’s Head of Public Affairs, Maimuna Jimada, noted that the comments were against the NBC code.
In October 2020, the agency imposed a sanction of N3 million each on Channels Television, African Independent Television (AIT), and Arise TV for gross violation of the Broadcast Code, which involved using unverifiable online video footage of the #ENDSARS protest on social media.
Armstrong Idachaba, NBC acting Director-General, also announced that DAAR Communications, owners of AIT and Raypower, would be fined separately for using an unverifiable news item on the fire incident at the National Christian Centre.
In April 2021, The ICIR reported that NBC suspended and fined Channels TV N5 million for speaking with a spokesperson of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB
According to the NBC, Channels TV breached the broadcast code.
NBC told the Managing Director of Channels TV that the TV station erred by allowing a leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) to make secessionist and inciting declarations without caution.
The regulator accused the news channel of allowing the guest speaker to make derogatory, false and misleading statements about the Nigerian Army, despite being proscribed by a court of law.
Also, in November 2021, the Commission fined Arise TV N2 million for publishing a fake INEC statement on Tinubu’s alleged US drug trafficking case.
In the statement on November 12, 2022, the NBC said it monitored the use of a press release by Arise News, purportedly signed by Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) spokesperson Festus Okoye, alleging that the Commission was investigating an order of forfeiture issued by a United States court against the presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC) Bola Tinubu, to prosecute him.
In August 2022, the NBC fined Trust TV N5 million over a documentary on bandits terrorising Zamfara and other parts of the North-West.
The documentary titled “Nigeria’s Banditry: The Inside Story” was aired by the station on March 5, 2022.
According to the Commission, the fine was imposed on Trust TV because its broadcast of the said documentary contravened sections of the National Broadcasting Code.
The NBC recently fined Channels TV N5 million over a comment made by the Vice Presidential Candidate of the Labour Party (LP) Datti Baba Ahmed.
Baba-Ahmed had said in the interview with Channels TV that whoever swears in Tinubu on May 29 may be aborting the nation’s democracy.
According to him, Tinubu, who is the President-Elect, has not met the constitutional requirement to be declared the President.
Reacting, the NBC said Datti’s comments on Seun Okinbaloye-anchored “Politics Today” on Wednesday, March 22, was capable of inciting public disorder and therefore violated some sections of the broadcasting code.